WORD Up – WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival

Oh boy what an awesome festival the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival is! Exciting in the extreme. I was drenched by the time I got to my first event; Poetry readings at Scorpio Books. A packed house, and great poetry. The winner, Danielle O’Halloran, gave a fantastic live performance.

Danielle O'Halloran at Scorpio Books
Danielle O’Halloran at Scorpio Books

Next up a change of shoes for a very rainy Oratory on the Ōtākaro / Avon, with Joseph Hullen (Ngāi Tahu,Ngāi Tūāhuriri)

The walk follows significant sites from Puari Pa, which stretched from the Hospital to Kilmore Street, reveals another cultural layer buried under Christchurch, literally. Remains of yupuna (ancestors) have been found in Cathedral Square, under the old Library (Gloucester Street), and under St Luke’s Church (Kilmore Street).

Oratory on the Ōtākaro, with Joseph Hullen, Ngai Tahu
Oratory on the Otakaro, with Joseph Hullen, Ngai Tahu

Ngāi Tahu are driving a project to restore, beautify and rebuild the river, which was choked with sediment post quakes. Native life, such as Inanga (Whitebait) and Tuna (Eel) are coming back to the Ōtākaro to thrive. The installation of 13 Whariki Manaaki; tiled patterns based on traditional weaving designs, “weaves a Ngāi Tahu narrative into the rebuild.” (Joseph Hullen)

Whariki Manaaki, Otakaro / Avon River, with Joseph Hullen, Ngai Tahu
Whariki Manaaki, Ōtākaro / Avon River, with Joseph Hullen, Ngai Tahu

Leaving the Red ZoneAfter a very welcome afternoon tea, it was time to go to the launch of Leaving the Red Zone, a collection of poems inspired by the Canterbury earthquakes. Joanna Preston’s poem, ‘Ministry of Sorrow’ was especially moving and powerful. Included is the poem, ‘Rebuild’ by one of the Library’s own poets, Greg O’Connell.

Feeling like festival flotsam, I made my way through the crowds of excited festival goers to The Power of Poetry. Featuring Bill Manhire, Selina Tusitala Marsh, C.K Stead, Fiona Kidman, and Ali Cobby Eckermann. Ali’s view from the Aboriginal culture was a poignant perspective, and I loved Selina’s repetition : t t t t t…d d d d …

L-R Fiona Kidman, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Selina Tusitala Marsh, C.K Stead, Paul Millar and Bill Manhire.
L-R Fiona Kidman, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Selina Tusitala Marsh, C.K Stead, Paul Millar and Bill Manhire.

WORD Christchurch


Atmosphere of hope – WORD Christchurch

What I inevitably find out at book festivals is how little I actually know! Yesterday my lack of literary knowledge was found to be lacking and today I feel equally challenged at the Tim Flannery Atmosphere of hope session. Perhaps the only thing I can say in my defence is that at least the sessions have made me think and will inevitably lead me to new books and subjects.  Maybe this is the strength of book festivals in that they engender a sense of curiosity?

Tim Flannery. Photo by Damien Pleming. Image supplied.
Tim Flannery. Photo by Damien Pleming. Image supplied.

Tim Flannery has published over 30 books, including the award-winning The Future Eaters. He has been Australian Humanist of the Year and Australian of the Year. He is co-founder and chair of the Copenhagen Climate Council, Australia’s Chief Climate Commissioner, and co-founder and head of the Australian Climate Council.

This man is impressive, but I found myself at times struggling to hear him. Simon Wilson has this big booming voice whereas at times Tim Flannery “mumbled in his boots” as my mother used to say.

Cover of Atmosphere of hopeAs the title of this session suggests Tim Flannery believes there is some hope in the climate warming situation.  This has to be carefully negotiated however because if you have too much hope then you breed complacency, but too much despair and people give up. He has great faith in innovation and believes that “the commonsense of people is our greatest resource”.  He wants to see governments having impressive innovation funds, and managed to flatter the audience by talking about how clever and innovative Kiwis are.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I learnt is that emissions growth has flatlined for the first time when an economy has been growing, and this is in large part due to the role that China is playing, having started closing down old and inefficient coal fired industries and developing clean air technologies.  This is certainly not what you hear through mainstream media.

Question time was busy …I am always interested in how many people use this time to voice their opinions rather than actually ask the speaker a question, but perhaps they know more than me?

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Busted: Feminism and Pop Culture – WORD Christchurch

In the 1980s I was very involved in feminist politics, a lot has changed since those times.  We are on the cusp of the first American woman president and women are in some positions of power, but are our lives any better for this?  Many women are choosing to remain single, to concentrate on their careers but still get paid less than men.  Dieting and body image are the mainstay of most women’s magazines, and we seem increasingly obsessed with celebrity culture.  So how does a feminist of many years manage to create a magazine that remains relevent to today’s feminists?

Debbie Stoller. Image supplied.
Debbie Stoller. Image supplied.

Debbie Stoller, is co-founder and editor of BUST:

the magazine was one of the founders of ‘girlie feminism,’ a third wave feminist strategy which re-evaluated and embraced traditional feminine activities.

“Girlie feminism”?? Really?  My old feminist bones are creaking at such terminology, but then I find myself nearly choking when Debbie Stoller declares that Martha Stewart is her third favourite feminist!  Later on she announces that her first and second are Madonna and Courtney Love.  I don’t get it.  However what I do get is that the women’s movement has always been very good at putting the boot in, we haven’t been good at vigorous debate and this has been to our detriment, so with this in mind  I am doing my best to remain open, the old timers in the 70s and 80s believed change would come through politic but Debbie Stoller believes that  “mainstream media is where change will happen”.

BUST. Image supplied

So what is BUST like?  It is full of women comics, musicians and actors saying positive feminist things.  Tina Fey is a good example, recounting being asked  “isn’t this an amazing time for women in comedy?” and I was like ‘I don’t know is it?’ Do I make what Will Ferrell makes? No.” Feminism via BUST now includes cooking, crafting, creating a wedding, interesting sustainable clothing, sex and travel.  There is no evidence of body shaming or articles on the Kardashians.

Feminism via BUST is palatable, it means the magazine has managed to get to 100 issues and that is impressive, as Debbie Stoller says “there’s not a lot of money in feminism”, keeping the magazine going must have been tough at times.  I came away from this session with a mind full of questions, one hour was not nearly long enough, feminism and what it stands for is a debate of unending possibilities and BUST is challenging our foundations.

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Bloomsbury South – WORD Christchurch

A very appreciative audience greated Paul Millar as he introduced Peter Simpson and his new book Bloomsbury South.  Paul described the book as “highly scholarly” and an “elite coffee table book”.  I don’t think I have ever seen an “elite” coffee table book and did spend some moments pondering what an ‘un-elite’ coffee table book might look like?

Peter Simpson. Image supplied.

However, with all sorts of eliteness put aside I spent a very enjoyable hour as Peter Simpson  obviously knows his subjects backwards and had many an interesting anecdote to share.  He described a Christchurch that was a hotbed of creativity.  People wanted to be here and to be part of the vibe!  Artists, poets, writers, musicians, playwrights, publishers and actors abounded, sharing flats, painting each other and generally by the sound of things having a rollicking good time.

CoverIt would seem that every generation feels that they are the ones who are questioning the past and affecting change.  It occured to me that this group in the 30s, 40s and early 1950s were an incredibly cool group of people.  Other artists, writers and actors were attracted to come to Christchurch as word had spread that it was indeed a happening place.  It must have been incredibly exciting and life changing for many.  Peter Simpson described it as a “vortex of creative energy”.

The book is beautiful, wonderfully edited and put together with just the right amount of photos.  Peter Simpson has a wide view and takes in the politics of the time and ties all the artistic endeavours in with a good dollop of history and personal stories. Definitely a book to own and enjoy dipping into.

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Work/Sex – WORD Christchurch

CoverA stripper, a sex worker and a go go dancer walk into a book festival and … talked about their work.  All three women were in agreement that sex work is just that, work.  Work that needs decent conditions, support and respect.

“What is harder, sex work or writing?”  Writing!

“I was already going to bars and taking my clothes off for free, so I might as well get paid”

“I was a stripper but I was also a student, a daughter and an athlete”

“My job was to service the car, not drive it”

“It was a playground, I could experiment with different personalities”

“There was my night self and my day self”

All three women talked of friendships formed, shared experiences and Jodi Sh. Doff talked about a fox hole mentality.  Her experience in 1970s New York was different than the others who worked in a job that had been legalised or decriminalised. 70s New York strip clubs and brothels were run by the mob. The women were at the bottom and they had to look after themselves as no one else would.  Jodi Sh. Doff read out an extraordinary piece of writing that was raw, scary and horrific.

There was talk of men needing someone to talk to, needing to go to sex workers because they were unconfident, scared or felt inadequate. Kate Holden would prefer her husband to go to a sex worker than have an affair, and her son would she felt at least have a good experience if he chose to go to a sex worker. Leigh Hopkinson had always been honest about what she did, but gradually became more wary as people’s reactions could be negative.  In Jodi Sh. Doff’s case she earned more than working as a young person in a law firm.  There were drugs but these came before sex work, not because of it.

All wanted to work somewhere where they could be someone else, a full on Go Go dancer, a seductive striptease or a princess.  However it was still just a job, and as Kate Holden said why are we still talking about sex workers, we don’t interview sandwich makers!

WORD Christchurch

Grieving and Living: What Abi Taught Us – WORD Christchurch

Lucy Hone. Image supplied
Lucy Hone. Image supplied

‘Buy This Book’. I have never, in all the many blogs I have written started a blog with these three words.

Lucy Hone wrote What Abi Taught Us after the traumatic death of her 12 year old daughter Abi in a car accident. Abi left the house to go for a drive with family friends. And she never came back. How does one cope with a life event like this?

Standing alone centre stage, without even the use of the podium provided, Lucy Hone reached out to all of us to share her strategies for survival in the face of one of life’s crueller events.

She made us think about what resilience meant to us, that it is not a suit of armour that you don, but rather a way of leaning into pain and hardship that allows us to feel the emotion while continuing to function in our lives, which just carry right on.

She used her studies in Psychology and  qualifications in Resilience Psychology to work out what strategies we need to nurture our own mental health – even in the face of the unthinkable.  The three Determinants of Happiness are: 50% from your genetic start point ( the Mum and Dad stuff), 10% from outside influences (winning the lotto or surviving an earthquake) and 40% from our own thoughts and actions. And it is in that wriggle room of 40% that Hone has developed the five strategies that we all need:

What Abi Taught UsStrategy 1 – Choose where you focus your attention

We don’t have infinite processing capacity. Our brains can only manage 7 pieces of information at a time. Genetically (and understandably, for survival’s sake) we are hard-wired to notice the bad stuff. We need to practise noticing what is going well. People who have higher gratitude scores have better well-being. Lucy has a sign in her kitchen – a bright pink poster and on it the words: ACCEPT THE GOOD. She refers to it often.

Strategy 2 – Never Lose Hope

Lucy paid tribute to the building we were in – the brand new The Piano – as a concrete manifestation of hope for Christchurch. She stressed how important it is to recognise that we all have some big hopes and many smaller ones. When tragedy occurs, turn to your smaller hopes. Ask yourself: What am I hoping for now? It may be something very small. Go for that smaller hope.

Strategy 3 – Nurture Your Relationships

Good relationships are a great predictor of happiness. Be careful with your communications, even when you are in pain. It takes 5 positive interactions to cancel out one negative communication. The negative is unfortunately very powerful.

Strategy 4 – Ask yourself: Is this thing helping or harming me?

Lucy and her husband chose not to view the motor vehicle in which Abi lost her life. They asked themselves this question and the answer was No, this will not help. It is a very simple tool. It will help you get up out of bed, put one foot in front of the next and grieve and function at the same time.

Strategy 5 – Understand that struggle is a part of life

Sometimes we just have to be brave. Sometimes the happy FaceBook version of our life is so far from the truth. We have to allow ourselves to feel sad. Resilience Therapy understands that the bad stuff will happen – just don’t get stuck in one emotional state for too long. Try not to bottle it up. Lucy worried that she might cry in this presentation. Then she thought – So What. Crying is just crying. She grieves while simultaneously living.

Abi loved the book Allegiant from the Divergent Trilogy and had highlighted a passage from it. Lucy found this passage after Abi had died. She sees what she is doing as being like a line from that highlited quote, that she is making:

the slow walk towards a better life

There was not a dry eye in the Concert Hall at 12pm.

Thank you for talking to us Lucy.

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Last Word Whisky and Poetry — WORD Christchurch

Hats off to whoever decided to combine whisky with poetry, what a fantastic idea! Judging by the crowded seats of the Last Word I wasn’t the only one to think so. Perfect for a brisk winter afternoon.

WORD at the Last Word.

Sarah Jane Barnett kicked off the session by reading from a longer poem about coping with the devastation of your childhood home, something I’m sure many can relate to here in Christchurch:

She points to questions she has highlighted in bold yellow. “You need to answer these too.” She smiles. Her hand rests lightly. “Should I read them out?” she asks, as if lightness is a face she often wears. I say, I have good English, I’m a translator. But she reads to me, pointing and smiling.

David Howard read some opaque poetry:

If you want love to stay, shut up our house, covering the furniture with dirty sheets. When the moon was full, he could see it in the pond. Still, if he pulled the shutters there would be no colour, just the memory that is language. Bad language.

Steven Toussaint explored the influence of Dante:

Voluptuous, the resultant species, yes, but not itself the base whereby all voices balance. If the subjects meet before the finial seat is crossed, the gaze is lost in the ardour of all others.

And then luckily we returned to poetry I could understand with the moving, sometimes alarming words of Emma Neale:

Emma Neale performing at the Last Word.
Emma Neale performing at the Last Word.

and it’s the moment walking past
an unlit downtown doorway
when footsteps start their time-bomb tick
behind her:

stay calm, she thinks,
no sudden moves.

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The Spinoff After Dark – WORD Christchurch

This late night event at C1 Espresso featuring talent from “New Media empire in the making” The Spinoff was shambolic – but in the best possible way.

Literary festivals are, out of necessity, highly organised affairs. Sessions start at certain times and time limits are fairly rigidly adhered to. People file in, file out. Signing table queues may snake and cause congestion but otherwise it’s all pretty orderly. Festivals like this are something of a logistical nightmare so structure is both expected and advised.

So this wasn’t really like that.

Duncan Greive and Giovanni Tiso - The Spinoff after dark
Duncan Greive and Giovanni Tiso – The Spinoff after dark. The Twitterati? Yeah nah.

Rather, The Spinoff After Dark had a “flying by the seat of the pants – did someone really let us do this?” feeling to it while at the same time being thoroughly WORD in its content. A bit like the heyday of Mediaworks, when Joanna Paul and Belinda Todd had the helm of Nightline. You knew it was all sort of related to the other serious, newsy output of TV3 – but it sure as heck didn’t feel like it.

Alex Casey, Duncan Greive and Joe Bennett - The Spinoff after dark
Alex Casey, Duncan Greive and Joe Bennett – The Spinoff after dark. Beware the chair lobber.

And if that hastily cobbled together comparison hasn’t fired your desire for things old and defunct the  “mini-interview of various festival performers” section of the evening included… Joe Bennett!

But to give credit to Bennett, his was actually my favourite of the quickfire “snackable content” interviews that Toby Manhire, Alex Casey and Duncan Greive tag-teamed on, if only for this marvellous interaction –

Alex Casey: *Describes local event that anyone who’s watched television or used the Internet in the last 10 years would know about* (in this case fundraising celebrity boxing match Fight for Life)

Joe Bennett: ….. *tumble weeds*

Bennett also shared an anecdote about the time that, in his role as English teacher at Christ’s College, he threw a chair at one of his students, coming distressing close to giving the lad a head injury – the head in question belonging to Leigh Hart aka That Guy.

This was a funny wee tale on its own told in the usual emphatic Bennett style but got funnier when my partner admitted during the drive home that he too had a chair thrown at him by an entirely different English teacher at a different Christchurch boys’ school.

Is this a thing, former schoolboys of Christchurch? Answers on a complaint form to the Ministry of Education.

Steve Hely - The Spinoff after dark
Steve Hely – The Spinoff after dark – he likes Max Key a lot.

Other interviewees included American humorist Steve Hely, author and literary bunfight starter Paula Morris (fave biscuits in descending order afghan, melting moments/yoyos, gingernuts), Festival director and author Rachael King, journalist Rebecca MacFie, blogger Giovanni Tiso and probably someone I’ve forgotten because by that stage it was quite late and my brain probably stopped retaining information.

The event also included lights that sometimes flickered and seemed to get more dim at random times, cleverly highlighting the “after dark” part of the event name, and an AMA (Ask Me Anything) portion during which Manhire read questions for himself and fellow Spinoffers harvested from Twitter, several of which were attributed to Guy Williams who clearly has too much time on his hands.

Toby Manhire, Alex Casey, Duncan Greive- The Spinoff after dark
Toby Manhire, Alex Casey, Duncan Greive – The Spinoff after dark. Toby answer 536 question from Guy Williams.

We learned exciting new things: that both Manhire and Casey do not like eggs (whaaaat?), that Manhire thinks he looks like Ben Whishaw (hmmmm), and that both Casey and Greive have had ghostwriting gigs that neither of them seem particularly ashamed of – Casey for Youtube star Jamie Curry (the trick to doing it quickly is to include lots and lots of photos – a device I have tried to employ in this very post), Greive for heatpump enthusiast/sportsman Dan Carter.

If this session sounds like it was a bit of an odd jumble of things, it certainly was – and a great time because of it. A++. Worth staying awake for.

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Cities of tomorrow: A better life? – WORD Christchurch

When it comes to city-building and urban planning people in Christchurch have more to say about this than they ever have. We’re at a crucial point in our recovery where most of the old that will go has and we’re getting a clearer and clearer idea of what the new will actually be like. It’s an in-between place, a liminal place, and not necessarily a comfortable place.

So picking the brains of experts in the field of governance, sustainability and city planning seems like a good idea. Sure, we might all have opinions about how to make a city that offers a better life for its inhabitants but they’re not necessarily well informed ones. What do the experts think?

On the panel for this session were French experts Marie-Anne Gobert of Lyon, Cécile Maisonneuve of Paris, Mark Todd of Auckland property development company (and literary prize sponsors) Ockham, and former Christchurch resident (who now lives in Sydney) Barnaby Bennett.

Anne-Marie Gobert, Barnaby Bennett, Kim Hill, Cecile Maisonneuve and Mark Todd
Anne-Marie Gobert, Barnaby Bennett, Kim Hill, Cecile Maisonneuve and Mark Todd, Flickr File Reference: 2016-08-27-IMG_2499

Radio New Zealand presenter Kim Hill had what turned out to be a reasonably challenging job, in keeping the discussion moving along, correctly interpreting the French accents, and managing the audience input – tasks she undertook with her characteristic gentle belligerence.

Speaking of the audience, this was bar far the most vocal crowd I’ve been part of in the festival so far. Christchurch people are, generally speaking, fairly undemonstrative in these kinds of events but this topic generated much spontaneous clapping (mainly when Central Government was pinned as having failed in some respect) and vocal affirmations of the “hear, hear” variety.

I guess when an author is discussing their work we’re happy to sit and listen, but we are all, to some extent or other, experts in our own city and people attending this session obviously have a reasonable level of engagement with the subject matter.

The main points that stuck out for me were –

  • Local authorities need to be willing to take risks and to experiment, to try small-scale pilots of things to learn if they work and then be scaled up if successful. Failure, particuarly when small, fast and comparatively inexpensive aren’t cause for shame or embarrassment, they’re a crucial way to learn what works and what doesn’t.
  • Good public transportation is vital.
  • Engagement with communities needs to be iterative.
  • Stratification of the rich and poor is really bad for cities and the people who live in them
  • Public-private partnerships can work if the terms are clearly defined

The question and answer session at the end was unfortunately rather overshadowed by a gentleman (I use the term loosely) from Southland who ranted on and on and even with prodding from Kim Hill simply refused to get to the point, prompting her to ask –

I appreciate this dystopian polemic, sir…but is there a question?

The crowd was actively booing him and telling him to shut up at this point and by the time he insulted Barnaby Bennett’s dress sense, he’d lost pretty much everyone. It was the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever seen at a literary festival.

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The Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture: David Levithan — WORD Christchurch

Imaginary things, once properly imagined, will grow as powerful and lucid as if they were true. —Margaret Mahy, Memory

Growing up David Levithan didn’t see himself in literature, or if he did, it was with an undercurrent of unease — queer characters were often sidelined, or the subject of tragedy. Levithan seeks to address that with his engaging, often humorous stories of young love between boys, and he’s not alone, if the growing movement of We Need Diverse Books is anything to go by.

David Levithan. Image supplied
David Levithan. Image supplied

The cure that literature can offer, the panacea or the help that we can give, the hope that we can give, is empathy. It is the notion of a common humanity. It is the notion that another human being has so much more in common with you than difference with you.

Empathy becomes even more important when faced with today’s prevailing political winds, closing borders and minds as it blows. Fiction at its best provides other perspectives, other contexts for living. Levithan believes that inherent in Young Adult literature is a belief that there is an ability to change things, not just a diagnosis of a problem but providing the compass pointing the way out. Even bleak books such as M. T. Anderson’s Feed and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War try to provoke action in readers where the characters themselves might despair.

The co-writing process — an exercise in trust

Cover of You Know Me WellLevithan is very non-monogamous literarily. Co-writing brings out something unexpected in his writing, and he approaches every collaboration with the spirit of experimentation. He always maintains his own chapters, honing his own character while having only limited control over the story. This can provide difficulties for his collaborators; Levithan recently discovered that Nina LaCour usually writes her books out of sequence, which made the chronological narrative of You Know Me Well a little challenging. Levithan publicly declared his intention to continue joining forces with other authors, his next release (The Twelve Days of Dash and Lily, co-written with Rachel Cohn) being released in October.

Making characters real

One of the biggest mistakes beginning writers can make is to think that conflict has to be Conflict with a capital C in order to be worthy of a story. Smaller conflicts can be just as compelling, such as fighting with your best friend. To make characters real, try writing out the thoughts of your characters, as flat characters don’t have thoughts. It’s important to establish what the main character is thinking even if this doesn’t make it into the final text.

Cover of Two Boys KissingTwo Boys Kissing

When asked to be part of an anthology about queer teens, Levithan decided to explore the dimension of history. Two Boys Kissing is therefore narrated by a Greek chorus of the gay men of the AIDS generation, of his uncle’s generation, while looking down on the generation below Levithan — the current gay teens with their (relative) freedom. The plot came from hearing about Matty Daley and Bobby Canciello, who’d just broken the Guinness World Record for Longest Continuous Kiss.

Why do you do what you do?

For the readers. The books aren’t important; it shouldn’t matter what book is better than the other. What authors want is not to win awards or earn money (although I’m sure they wouldn’t say no), but for their books to matter to a reader.

Sometimes teens need someone on the outside to help them work out what they’re feeling on the inside.

Not just teens, David Levithan, not just teens. Thanks for visiting Christchurch.

Suggested reading

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